Hepatitis B is similar to hepatitis A in its symptoms, but is more likely to cause chronic long-term illness and permanent damage to the liver if not treated.
How hepatitis B is spread
The hepatitis B virus (HBV) is very common worldwide, with more than 350 million people infected. Those with long term HBV are at high risk of developing liver cirrhosis or liver cancer.
Hepatitis B is most frequently passed on through the exchange of bodily fluids with an infected person. HBV is estimated to be 50 to 100 times more infectious than HIV.
HBV can be spread in the following ways:
- by unprotected (without a condom) penetrative sex (when the penis enters the anus, vagina or mouth) with someone who is infectious. Also by sex that draws blood with someone who is infected.
- by sharing contaminated needles or other drug-injecting equipment.
- by using non-sterilised equipment for tattooing, acupuncture or body piercing.
- from an infected mother to her baby, most commonly during delivery. Immunisation of the baby at birth prevents the transmission of hepatitis B.
- through a blood transfusion in a country where blood is not screened for blood-borne viruses such as HBV.
Hepatitis B cannot be spread through sneezing, coughing, hugging or coming in contact with the faeces of someone who is infected.
Signs and symptoms of hepatitis B
Many people who become infected with HBV experience mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, but they may still carry the infectious virus and pass it on to others. When symptoms do appear they are similar to those of hepatitis A and may include:
- a short, mild, flu-like illness.
- nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.
- loss of appetite.
- weight loss.
- jaundice (yellow skin and whites of eyes, darker yellow urine and pale faeces).
- itchy skin.
If symptoms become severe then a person with hepatitis B may be admitted to hospital.
Most adults infected with the hepatitis B virus fully recover and develop life-long immunity. Between 2% and 10% of individuals infected as adults will become chronic carriers, which means they will be infectious to others and can develop chronic liver damage. Infected children, especially newborn babies, are much more likely to become chronic carriers.
If a person lives with hepatitis B infection for a number of years then they may develop the following complications:
- chronic hepatitis.
- liver cirrhosis.
- liver cancer.
Where to go for help
If you have any symptoms or you are worried you may have been infected with hepatitis B, you should discuss your worries with a doctor. They may be able to run tests themselves, or else will refer you to someone who can.
Some countries have specific sexual health clinics that can help you directly.
What does a positive test result mean?
A positive test result could indicate either of the following:
- A past infection. This means the patient has already been in contact with hepatitis B and their immune system has succeeded in fighting off the virus. The patient will then have a natural immunity to the virus.
- The patient is a carrier. This means the patient is carrying HBV and can pass it on to others. The person may not display any symptoms but could be at risk of developing chronic liver disease.
A doctor may perform a number of different types of test to distinguish between current and past infections, and to estimate how infectious a patient with a current infection may be.
What does a negative test result mean?
This result generally means the patient has never been infected with HBV and therefore has no natural immunity against the virus. If the person suspects they may have been recently exposed to HBV, the doctor may advise them to take a repeat test to confirm their negative status, and may also advise immunisation against hepatitis B.
In most countries a patient with a positive test result will be referred to a specialist who will carry out further tests to determine the degree to which hepatitis B may be affecting the liver, and what may be the best treatment options. In these tests a small sample of liver tissue may need to be taken (a liver biopsy).
In the majority of patients with active HBV, symptoms will not be severe and treatment will not be required. The patient will be monitored and after a few months the patient’s immune system should fight off the virus, giving the patient natural immunity.
In around 5% of adults, 30-50% of young children (aged 1-4), and 90% of infants, HBV infection will become chronic. The virus is more deadly to the young and those that are infected at birth have a 25% chance of developing a life-threatening liver-related illness.
Antiviral medication is given as treatment to those with chronic symptoms to help prevent further liver damage. These medications may be injected or given in pill form. Examples are Interferon Alpha, Lamivudine and Baraclude. Treatment usually lasts 6 months, during which the patient will be carefully monitored.
Regardless of whether the infection is producing symptoms or not, the patient will be advised to avoid alcohol, get plenty of rest and maintain a healthy diet.
Three immunisation injections are given over a period of 3-6 months. A blood test is taken once the course of injections is completed to check that they have worked. Immunity should last for at least 5 years.
A patient with an active infection will be advised to have regular blood tests and physical check-ups to monitor the virus, even if they are not receiving treatment. All carriers of HBV should expect to be referred to specialist services.
The doctor or nurse may advise the patient to avoid alcohol, fatty foods and follow a low-salt diet. They will also describe any precautions necessary to ensure that the patient avoids infecting others with the virus, such as not sharing toothbrushes or shaving equipment.
It is most important to use a condom for penetrative sex to prevent passing on the virus. Sexual partners of the patient should be tested and immunised against HBV (if not already infected).
Filed Under: Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD)